Has Apple Leveled the iPhone App Playing Field? Maybe

By  |  Monday, July 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Of all the controversies over Apple’s iPhone App Store acceptance policies, the one that’s bothered me most doesn’t involve smut, flatulence, tethering, bizarrely expensive knickknacks, or  even the work of Pulitzer Prize winners. No, what’s really bugged me has been the periodic evidence that Apple has a problem with iPhone software that aims to compete with its own apps. The examples started soon after the App Store opened (Apple told the developer of a podcasting app it nixed that it wasn’t allowed to duplicate iTunes functionality) and most famously include the company’s refusal to approve the Google Voice app on the grounds that it “interferes with the iPhone’s distinctive user experience.”

(Depending on whether you side with Apple or Adobe, you may or may not lump the iPhone Flash controversy in with this class of rejection. If you’re following iOS development issues carefully, you may also be ticked off over Apple’s refusal to let apps developed with non-Apple tools into the store.)

For iPhone owners who believe in the power of competition, the notion that Apple gets to decide if its apps face competition on its own platform is profoundly unsettling. It’s a bit as if Microsoft had responded to the arrival of Netscape Navigator in the mid-1990s by booting Netscape out of Windows, period. And I continue to believe it’s not only bad for Apple customers but bad, long-term, for Apple itself. (If the iPhone ended up as a land of calcifying Apple apps and no good alternatives, it would be one more reason to buy an Android phone.)

The company’s position on competitive applications has been mysterious, evolving, and–as far as I know–one it’s never explained in public. The only way to know for sure what its stance is on a particular program with some similarity to an Apple app is to hold your breath and see whether it gets accepted.

Lately, though, nearly all the news about iPhone apps that compete with Apple ones has been good. Services such as Rhapsody and MOG, for instance, have brought subscription music with offline listening to the iPhone, despite the fact that they make it possible to gorge on music on the phone without ever touching iTunes. And Opera Mini, the first alternative iPhone browser that doesn’t piggyback on Apple’s Webkit rendering engine, is in the App Store.

Apple even seems to have softened on phone apps.  Back in March, it approved Line2, which provided VoIP via an interface very much like that of Apple’s Phone app. (It’s recently been updated to support multitasking, so it can ring to alert you of incoming calls even when you’re in another program.)

Even more notably, Apple approved last week’s new version of Skype, which is pretty much the version that every Skype fan who owns an iPhone has wanted all along. Now that Skype supports 3G and multitasking, the notion of using it as your primary phone on the iPhone–and using Apple’s Phone app with AT&T voice service rarely, if ever–isn’t completely nuts. I don’t think I’m going to do that, since I already have an AT&T number and a Google Voice one, and one more would be one phone number too many. But it’s nice to know the option exists.

There is one core iPhone app which I already use as rarely as possible: Safari. I’ve switched almost completely to Atomic Web Browser, which feels far more like a desktop browser. It’s got real tabs, the ability to search the text in the page, a full-screen mode, and other key features that Safari lacks. I’ve already forgotten what life was like before it, and recommend it heartily.

I doubt that Apple loses much sleep over Atomic. For one thing, it seems to be the work of one talented programmer, not a browser biggie such as Microsoft, Google, or Firefox. For another, all of its Web-page rendering is done by Safari. Bottom line: It poses no current or future existential threat to Apple’s own iPhone browser.

Which brings up a gloomy possible interpretation of the current situation: Maybe Apple is only willing to approve third-party rivals if it’s convinced they’re going to remain small potatoes. As interesting as apps such as Rhapsody and MOG are, the vast majority of the music-listening world seems to have decided that the iTunes model (buying tunes one at a time) beats the subscription one (paying a flat fee to rent music). Opera Mini, as clever as it is, is a specialty browser: It’s designed to be used primarily in areas with crummy Internet access. And Line2 is a small company that markets its service as a complement to Apple’s Phone app rather than a substitute for it.

The new Skype is a happy sign that Apple is willing to approve extremely competitive applications from very large companies. Given Apple’s erratic approval patterns in the past, though, it’s not enough to make clear the era of rejecting programs for encroaching on its turf is over.

So I’m still asking myself questions about Apple’s philosophies and intentions. Such as:

  • If Google acquired Atomic Web Browser and made no changes to the app except changing its name to Chrome for iPhone, would Apple approve it, or would it suddenly become unacceptable?
  • If Google resubmitted Google Voice, would Apple approve it?
  • If Amazon submitted apps for its Amazon MP3 and/or Video on Demand services–both of which compete more directly with the iTunes Store than anything that Apple has approved–would they get in?
  • Why is there no full-blown alternative e-mail client on the iPhone? (There’s lots of opportunity to build something better than Apple’s Mail–for one thing, I want a mail client that can store thousands of messages locally and which provides full-text searching.)
  • Apple is opening up FaceTime as a standard, but does that mean it would accept a third-party developer’s FaceTime client for iOS devices?

Any guesses about any of the above? I choose to remain cautiously optimistic until there’s evidence that Apple isn’t willing to let its customers make the call on whether competitive apps belong on their iPhones or not…


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    iPhone owners who believe in the power of competition choose the best phone for them. There is a lot of competition.

    Google Voice and FaceTime are incompatible. Consider if 40% of iPhone users couldn't use FaceTime, why buy an iPhone 4? So Google Voice would be anti-competitive.

  2. John Baxter Says:

    I wonder whether Google has submitted an updated version of the Google Voice app. It might or might not be rejected now.

    But Google has to consider whether they now want Google Voice on the iPhone–the fact it the GV app on Android works much more smoothly than the web-based interface on the iPhone has been a plus for Android in comparisons.

    (I know I'd like the app on my iPhone, but I'm just a customer of Apple. I'm not even a customer of Google–their customers are the advertisers [and the users of paid Google Apps, which I am not].)

  3. SM Says:

    For Apple there is one goal and only one: making money. Don’t kid yourself into thinking customer experience is the primary goal; it’s only a means to an end. They will not open up any more than they absolutely have to. I think it is a tragic flaw, because they are not enriching customer lives as much as they could. And there are still enough thinking customers out here in the real world that have things like brand loyalty for logical reasons. There is no reason for Apple to hold back from giving the best possible customer experience in my mind. Look at the charts from Apple’s recent financial report. Revenue from iTunes is a pittance compared to what Apple makes selling actually iPhones and Macs and iPods. Sure it is millions of dollars still, but it is like 5% or less of Apple’s profit. If Apple bought all the songs people are downloading and gave them away to customers for free, Apple would make a net profit by selling more than enough new Macs and iPhones. So why can’t they do much smaller things, like allowing Opera Mini to use pinch-to-zoom, like giving us WiFi-sync to our Macs yesterday not years from now, like allowing third party syncing applications (like the fine products from Mark/Space that allow users of other smartphones to sync very efficiently with their Macs), like allowing us to install VLC Player and music players that will let us play FLAC. In each case Apple is not allowing users the best possible experience in order to protect a very small percentage of their overall business.

    Many of the things Apple has opened up to recently are motivated by the competition from Android and FCC and DOJ investigations. Again, don’t kid yourself into thinking Apple has suddenly become enlightened and that their primary goal is to look out for you the customer. No business is that spiritual.

    Haven’t heard much about the Apple+Google anti-trust investigation for a while have you? Part of what is happening between Apple and Google is a PR smokescreen to avoid prosecution. And I have to say, they have done a smashing job of it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from anyone calling them on it. Now I don’t mean they are in tight coordination over plans. But I think when Eric resigned from the Apple board their gentlemen’s agreement shifted from “Let’s not hire each others workers,” to something more like “Let’s kick our competition into high gear and damn the torpedos until this investigation blows over.” This is all just to say, Steve Jobs animosity toward Google is both very real and very nonsensical. Google adds a lot to the iPhone and could add more. Google is not a serious threat to Apple and will never be, because it will never produce hardware (again I refer you to Apples earnings statement). Apple will never be a serious threat to Google because they will never get as good at doing internet things, certainly not search, and certainly not for free the way Google does. iAds will only take the place of current desktop software company revenues, they aren’t really taking much from Google. Google’s main competitor really is still Microsoft and will be for the foreseeable future.

    Apple hates Google, not because Android will kill the iPhone as Steve claims. But because Android is already forcing Apple to open up iOS far more than it had hoped to even 10 years down the road. The key to openness on Apple products will always be competition (mostly Android right now) and governmental oversight (the US feds, but also other countries where Apple gets traction, e.g. Europe).

    Apple’s decisions seem capricious because they are all about divining where the thin line is between driving customers to another platform (or being penalized by the government) on the one hand and being able to create and abuse a monopoly/trust on the other.

    Perhaps we need to create an analogue to carbon credits. We could call them Apple credits. The rule would be, to purchase an Apple product (like an iPhone), you have to spend equal money on the best competing product from another company. So if I buy an iPhone, I have to also buy the best Android phone on the market. It might be the only way to ensure that you offset the damage done to the Apple experience by buying an Apple product.

  4. Rome Says:

    SM – Great post, good insight